I was awoken from a heavy sleep by the characteristic sly shaking of a tremor. I leapt from my bed in the dark and ran to hold up the glass cabinet in the dining room, as I usually do during quakes.
Soon, though, the entire building was rocking widely with a deafening roar, the roar of a building in critical stress, and then I realized in absolute horror that this was the big one, at long last, the one you are taught from childhood to expect and fear, the one that changes history and geography, the one that can kill you. There’s no use running: that could be far worse. Stay where you are, and wait.
After a few minutes — as long as a lifetime — the shaking and the noise finally stopped. I cried out for my loved ones, and my cat; we were all so disoriented that it took us awhile to find each other and to comprehend that we were safe, unscathed. I ran back to my room and fumbled in the mess of my strewn belongings until I found a flashlight to survey the damage.
All the drawers in the house had sprung open; furniture had danced around; books and dishes and ornaments had flown onto the floor. Yet even though the earthquake was far more violent than the one in Haiti, not one serious crack had opened up in our sturdy four-story walk-up from the ’50s. Is this good luck or the height of civilization?
Indeed, of the thousands of contemporary mid- to high-rises in Santiago and Concepción, most were able to withstand the quake with only cosmetic damage, if any. Thank the stringent building codes and responsible building practices that have existed here since the devastating earthquakes of 1939 and 1960, which leveled many older structures.
I teach at the School of Architecture of the Universidad Católica, and faculty and students have begun to discuss how to help the reconstruction efforts in the southern regions of Maule and Bío-Bío. There, in the heartland of Chile, the postcard of our national identity, the earthquake unleashed its full force, made worse by an enormous tidal wave that swept the entire coastal area just a few minutes later, trapping many people, still shaken, inside their homes. Towns that had managed to dodge the forces of nature for hundreds of years were toppled or washed away. Beautiful old buildings of adobe and simple masonry are now gone forever.
Saddened as I am by the loss of life and landmarks, I am scandalized by the few modern structures that crumbled, those spectacular exceptions you keep seeing on the TV news. The economic bonanza and development frenzy of the last decades have clearly allowed a degree of relaxation of the proud building standards of this country. That’s likely why some new urban highway overpasses, built by private companies with government concessions, are now rubble. It’s a sobering lesson for the neoliberalism favored for the past 35 years, and a huge economic and cultural setback for the country.
For Chilean architects, this is the challenge of a lifetime: to restore beauty, to preserve history, to build sensibly.
Sebastian Gray, a professor of architecture at Universidad Católica de Chile.